How Churches Solve


It’s one thing for a church or ministry to make a decision on a new project or program and we talked about the processes for that previously. But what about fixing a previous decision that’s broken, or dealing with some sort of problem? That’s our subject this time: How Churches Solve.

Now let’s start with a disclaimer, no one can build a plausible paradigm to solve every problem. Some problems are simply intractable: they either can never be solved, or at best they can only be managed, like sports analyst Dan Patrick’s catchphrase, “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” Problems are at all times everywhere and they areProblems part of life. There is one thing I’d like to eliminate up front: the annoying idea that there are “good problems.” Too many times I’ve heard the banal response to a pressing situation, “well this is a good problem to have.” Most of the time that expression simply means, “please don’t force me to do something.” Webster defines a problem as, “a question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty.” There is no such thing as a “good problem.”

There are two basic types of problems: People Problems and Non-People Problems.[1] I’m also not talking about “inter-personal” problems, the kind best left to counselors, but rather structural or organizational problems, those everyday nuisances that arise in the life of a church or ministry and their leadership. But before you can engage in problem solving, whatever problem may be, there are some questions to be answered:

Is there really a problem? I’ve sat in numerous sessions where I’ve patiently listened to lengthy and passionate descriptions of some issue and the personalities involved. At the end I’ve asked, “so what exactly is the problem?” Often what are perceived to be problems simply aren’t, they are just issues of everyday life. Often issues that are perceived to be problems are simply annoyances or inconveniences. As Archie Goodwin stated to potential client, “people who aren’t used to being annoyed annoy easily.”[2] An elder or deacon who disagrees with the pastor’s idea isn’t a “problem.”

Often problems are perceived to exist when they don’t, or are assumed to exist on the basis of a very small sample size. For instance in the debate about the causation of global warming we’ve recently heard a lot of nonsense about “the hottest year on record.” But accurate weather records (for a very small part of the planet) only go back to about 1880 and really accurate weather statistics with satellite data and visible pattern observations, only to the 1960’s. Even if you accept a Young Earth position and postulate, for simplicity sake, an age of about 10,000 years for the earth you are basing enormous global policies on data that represents a dot on the overall timeline. Ministry leaders often do the same thing, over-reacting to some short-term (and often unevaluated) data set, making radical personnel, policy, and philosophy changes, which almost always turn out to be bad decisions.  One thing to remember, never try to solve problems in the middle of a crisis. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. A crisis needs to be managed and mitigated, problems need to be solved.  Once the crisis is mitigated and the emotions have passed by, then begin to work on solving the problem. The easiest example of this kind of “bad problem solving” would be the internment of Japanese Americans immediately after Pearl Harbor.

One thing to also be aware of is that bad leaders will often invent or “create” a problem in order to carry out some predetermined program. Often this has to do with personnel whom they wish to be rid of or a program they either want to start or eliminate. A plausible, or at least semi-plausible, problem is assumed (which doesn’t usually withstand much scrutiny), the predetermined personnel or program purge is accomplished, and amazingly the problem disappears. Boards and leadership team members need to always ask, “is this really a problem?”

Is this our problem? Anyone who knows me well would likely affirm that I am an incurable romantic. While I may not have “eyes that burn with an inner vision” there is a little of Don Quixote in my being. For a church and its leaders this can be a bad thing; setting out on a quest and taking on problems, that perhaps are real enough, but with which you should have nothing to do. If the problem presented is real enough then the question must be asked if it really belongs to you to solve. If it doesn’t beware of being a “busybody” (1 Tim 5:13) and taking on something that isn’t yours, in all likelihood you will simply make it worse.

Pastors of course do have to take on even inter-personal problems when they begin to affect the overall body of the church. I remember once in a church it was noticeable that two elderly ladies never spoke to one another (it was a small church) and always sat on opposite sides of the church. I finally made an inquiry about it and was told that they were lifelong friends when a misunderstanding about a year earlier had led to an uncomfortably awkward estrangement (since they and their families were related by marriage), which was impacting the life of that local church. Taking a direct approach I invited them both to my office, making certain they arrived separately. When they were both there, I closed and locked my door, sat in a chair blocking the door and said we weren’t leaving until this was fixed. After about 15 minutes of dead silence, there were a lot of tears, and in about two hours it was fixed. Starting the next Sunday they sat together and ate Sunday lunch’s together again as they had done for the previous few decades.

If the problem isn’t yours give it to whomever it belongs to and be done with it. But if it is yours take it, deal with it promptly and forthrightly, and either solve it or let it run it’s course.

What caused this problem? It’s impossible to properly solve a problem without knowing what caused it. Without knowing the causation, the likelihood of your solution making things ever worse increases dramatically. As the new pastor or new leader it is a certainty that you will be approached in your first month with an issue that has been ignored or “swept under the rug.” And, you may be tricked into issuing an order or “solving” a problem without having enough information. Two different churches were faced with an attendance problem. In one case in a three-month period attendance had dropped 15%. Another church (different area) had seen a significant growth in attendance, nearly 20% also in a three-month period. In both cases the church leadership (mainly the pastor) proposed solutions to problems he didn’t really understand and in both cases the “solutions” were disastrous, disruptive, and created entirely new sets of problems.

Some problems are transitory or seasonal, something like allergies. I worked with a pastor in his new church that was in a particular part of the country which was a summer vacation spot. During the “season” attendance was nearly 600, but when school started and through the winter the residential attendance dropped to about 150. In reality, what he perceived to be a “problem” actually wasn’t, it was just a fact of life for that area. He learned to live with it and the ministry thrived.

What are the possible options? Like all things there are good and bad solutions to problems. Let’s look at some typical approaches that we want to avoid:

  • One Size Fits All: Regardless of the problem there is the “one size fits all” approach to problem solving. I listened to a pastor’s conference Q&A session once and in the rather complex variety of problems that were presented the answer was essentially the same: “preach.” Now, obviously preaching is important in the life of the church, but it isn’t the answer to every problem a church may face.
  • Create Policies and Procedures: While its true that some gap in the constitution, or policy manual, or something may exist, this solution is usually not geared towards solving a problem but rather making sure it doesn’t happen again. I know one organization that has a policy manual over nearly 1,000 pages, constantly amended as they “solve” problems.  It doesn’t fix the current issue it rather abdicates problem solving with the less than satisfying concept that whatever has happened has happened, we aren’t willing to make it right in your case, but be assured that we’ve taken steps so it won’t happen again. This approach is little more than “be warmed and filled.”
  • Hang Them High: Typically, bad problems solvers will take dramatically bad approaches. For problem-averse leaders the easiest thing to do is just getting rid of the people or things you perceive as causing the problem. As Shakespeare had the character in Henry VI state, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
  • Ignore the Problem (“it will take care of itself”): The opposite approach of problem-averse leaders is to simply ignore the problem. However, while sometimes the effort or trauma to solve a problem will be painful, beware of the lie that somehow, “it will take care of itself.” It won’t, unresolved problems will eat away at morale, your leadership, and cause more problems, potentially becoming a crisis.
  • Deny the Problem is Real: This is slightly different than simply ignoring the problem. Those who ignore problems will usually admit the problem is real enough. However, there are leaders who will actually deny a problem really exists (especially if they created the situation in the first place) in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I worked with a church once where the board (with reluctant acceptance by the pastor) had hired me to consult with their struggling ministry. In one of my reports I pointed out a very obvious problem they had and explained how (1) this had been going on way too long, (2) it was crippling several aspects of their ministry, and (3) it was reaching a tipping point for disaster. The board, to a man, stared at the pastor, who was at that moment wishing for the rapture, since he had been telling the same board for months that this problem “didn’t exist.”
  • Simply Affirm that the Leadership (Pastor, Elders, etc.) Are Always Right: I once listened to a church leader affirm that any opposition to the church leadership, even the suggestion that they had made a mistake, was sin. There is a paternalistic tendency in some places to say to those who raise issues about real problems, “There, there. Don’t worry.” Or, “You just don’t have the big picture, everything is really OK” or similar drivel. This goes back to the misguided idea that if the elders are unanimous (at least in their outward vote) then whatever is being done is certainly God’s will.

The ways to actually handle problems are really rather simple. After you answer the three questions work on straightforward solutions. Deal quickly, decisively, and efficiently with the issues to both quell the immediate problem and work to ensure that whenever possible the problem is not repeated. Without being cruel, remember that sometime people are the problem. In his now classic book, Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off, and then making sure the right people are in the right seats. Sometimes people need to get on another bus, and in the hardest cases it’s the pastor.

Problems will never just disappear, solve themselves, or “go away.” Unresolved problems have the potential to become a crisis (a subject for another time). As we mentioned at the beginning some problems may be intractable and unsolvable, but as long as you understand that you can at least manage them; sort of like the church I worked with that had bought all the property in an area except for one house. Nice house, nice people, nice enough neighbors; but they wouldn’t sell, they were not interested in Christianity at any level, were in fact Buddhists, and had statues and other symbolic items all around the property, and in a quiet perfectly legal way had the sounds of their religion wafting over their walls to the surrounding church functions. In that case the solution to the problem was to learn patience.



[1] Of course, foundationally all problems involve people, without people there would be no problems.

[2] Rex Stout, The Doorbell Rang: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (New York: Viking Press, 1966), 9.

This entry was posted in Church Ministry, Ministry, Pastoral Ministry, Theology by Dennis Swanson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dennis Swanson

Dr. Dennis M. Swanson is currently the Dean of Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Formerly was the VP of The Master's Seminary Library, Accreditation, and Operations for 24 years. He also oversaw the production of The Master's Seminary Journal, and is an experienced writer and editor. Prior to the he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.